The "best minds" are a collective group of Ginsberg's friends and acquaintances who composed the Beat Generation. They appear explicitly in his poem "Howl," but though the name is not used in other poems (and is used only once in "Howl"), the idea of the "best minds" came to symbolize all those who rejected the strictures of society in favor of a life of artistic, poetic, and free expression in the time period of the Beat movement.
Kerouac appears implicitly in many of Ginsberg's poems, and explicitly in his poem "Sunflower Sutra." Kerouac, a real figure, was an author and poet of the Beat Generation. He wrote "On the Road" and "Dharma Bums" amongst other well known works. Ginsberg carried on a brief love affair with Kerouac in his days at Columbia, but Jack was not strictly homosexual and could not return Ginsberg's affection. The two remained close, however, throughout their careers.
Neal Cassady was a real-life Beat poet and writer. He is considered the "hero" of many Beat pieces of literature, including "Howl," for his frenetic energy, debauched lifestyle, and his refusal to situate himself within the normal institutions of American life.
Ginsberg enjoyed a brief friendship with Carl Solomon while living in New York City. The two first met when Ginsberg stayed briefly at a mental institution. Solomon was far more mentally unstable then Ginsberg, however, and many of his insane actions are chronicled in "Howl." Ginsberg saw real genius in Solomon, and made him the hero and savior of the Beat generation because he exemplified the insanity that occurs when a person can neither live in and accept modernity, nor stand to live within its confines.
Whitman, a nineteenth-century poet and part of the American Romantic movement, was considered one of America's first great poets. His poetry often dealt with issues of growing industrialization and the effect such growth had on the natural world and American frontier. Whitman foretold of a land in which individuality and identity were sacrificed in favor of industrial progress. Whitman is the guide and sage of Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California."
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs is mentioned only briefly in some of Ginsberg's poetry, such as "Howl" and "America," but his life exemplified what Ginsberg felt was America's demonization and isolation of its great artists. Burroughs, after a run-in with the law, moved to Tangiers, Morocco, and stayed there for some time -- something Ginsberg saw as profoundly representative of the isolation the Beat generation felt.
America becomes a personified entity in Ginsberg's poem of the same name. While America represents the country and the people in it, it is more of a character that represents the prevailing values of modern society -- industrialization, war, and greed -- values that Ginsberg believes have brought a kind of destruction to the original promise of the nation.
Henry Ford, the industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company, makes a brief appearance in the poem "America." Ginsberg uses Ford to make a point about the state of art in America -- a state in which art is commodified and commercialized.
Tom Mooney, who makes a brief appearance in "America," was an early twentieth-century leader of San Francisco workers who was falsely accused and imprisoned for a bombing he did not commit. Ginsberg uses Mooney to characterize America's political intolerance.
Sacco and Vanzetti
Sacco and Vanzetti were a pair of New England laborers and members of an anarchist party who were tried, convicted, and executed for armed robbery and murder in the early twentieth century. While neither their guilt nor their innocence was ever proven, their trials represent a failure of justice.
the Scottsboro boys
The Scottsboro boys were a group of African-Americans, mentioned in "America," who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Alabama. Ginsberg uses their example to invoke America's history of racial injustice.
Marx was a nineteenth-century philosopher who argued for the equality of economic conditions for laborers. His writings became the basis for modern communism.
Moloch is a character who appears in Part II of "Howl." Moloch -- originally an ancient Middle Eastern god of sacrifice -- here represents the evil and unholy sacrifice that Americans are forced to pay for their material wealth and the pollution of society and nature caused by corporatism, war, and industrial progress.
Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.